As Common-Core Test Season Begins, Teachers Feel Pressure

By Catherine Gewertz — February 23, 2015 6 min read
Nimra Mian and other 7th graders at Marshall Simonds Middle School in Burlington, Mass., take the PARCC field test last year. As common-core-aligned testing officially gets under way this spring, many teachers say they are feeling pinched to cover their subject matter. Snow days are compounding the pressure, as teachers rush to make up for missed instruction.

According to the calendar, it’s only two-thirds of the way through winter. But the spring testing season has begun.

Tests in many states are being given earlier than they were last year, and that’s putting pressure on teachers to cover as much content as they can before testing begins.

The pinch is most acute in the District of Columbia and the 10 states that are administering the common exams developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. Some of those states began tests as early as Feb. 16.

“We’ve hardly made it a month and a half into the semester before students are tested,” said Christina Hank, the secondary school curriculum coordinator in the Medina, Ohio, school district, about 30 miles south of Cleveland. Last year, teachers in 3rd through 8th grades had until late April to get their students ready for spring tests, she said, and high school teachers had until mid-March before students took graduation exams.

Spring Testing Schedules

More than half the states are using either the PARCC or Smarter Balanced assessment this spring to gauge students’ mastery of common standards. Testing schedules are more varied in the remaining states.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (10 states and the District of Columbia):

• Performance-based assessments are to be given Feb. 16 through May 8.
• End-of-year component is to be given April 13 to June 5.
• States choose four-week periods within those windows.

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (18 states):

• States can schedule performance tasks and computer-based portions of the test as they wish.
• No state chose to begin tests before March 10; most will begin between mid-March and early April, and finish by mid-May to early June.

States Using Non-Consortium Tests (22):

• States are using a variety of tests, so timing varies.

In the 18 states giving the Smarter Balanced assessment, testing is later. No state is starting before March 10, according to consortium officials. The other 22 states purchased tests off the shelf or hired vendors to craft assessments for them, so they each have their own testing windows. All but seven states have adopted the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics, but they are using different tests to gauge mastery of those expectations.

Complex Assessments

The PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests mark the widespread use of a new kind of assessment, so the timing plays out differently than it has previously in most states. In addition to multiple-choice and shorter-answer questions, each federally funded consortium designed performance tasks that require students to spend more time on complex, multistep problems, justifying their answers in math or drawing on several sources to build an argument in English/language arts.

States using Smarter Balanced can schedule the various elements of the test as they wish. Most Smarter Balanced states will begin the test between mid-March and early April, and wrap up by mid-May to early June, according to deputy executive director Luci Willits. The consortium’s aim is to have states give the tests after 60 percent of instruction has been provided in grades 3-8, and 80 percent of instruction in grade 11.

PARCC took a different approach. It chose two distinct testing windows: one for the lengthier performance tasks, from Feb. 16 through May 8, and another for the shorter-question, end-of-year portion of the test, from April 13 to June 5. Within those periods, states chose four-week windows, and typically allow districts some flexibility in scheduling within those windows. For PARCC, the goal was to administer the performance tasks in all tested grades, 3 through 11, after 75 percent of instruction, and the end-of-year portion after 90 percent of instruction.

Ohio is one of the few PARCC states that opted for the earliest part of the testing window, launching its performance-based assessment on Feb. 16. That’s because the longer tasks require human scoring, and the aim is to get results back before the school year ends, said state department of education spokesman John Charlton. He also said that since the performance tasks are based only on what students learned in the first three-quarters of the school year, they “won’t be tested on material they haven’t covered yet.”

That doesn’t offer universal reassurance to teachers, however. In Ohio, many report feeling that they don’t have enough time to cover the content that will be on the tests.

“The performance-based assessment is supposed to test 75 percent of the material, but it’s pretty unrealistic that teachers are ready for that in mid-February,” said Sara Arthur, who teaches math to middle and high school students at the Toledo Technology Academy, a magnet school of 280 students where the PARCC exams began Feb. 17.

Snow Delays

In Illinois, Kimberly Lisanby-Barber, the principal of the John F. Kennedy School, which enrolls 850 students in grades pre-K-8 in Spring Valley, said her students are taking the PARCC performance tasks in mid-March, a couple of weeks later than they took last year’s state tests. But her teachers are still concerned about covering all the needed material.

“We start school after Labor Day, and we’ve had four snow days, and we’re coming up on March and really trying to get things in,” she said. “You can make up snow days later in the year, and that’s great, but the tests are done by then.”

Teachers in Twin Falls, Idaho, don’t begin Smarter Balanced tests until April 20. But Kasey Teske, the principal of Canyon Ridge High School, said his teachers still “are definitely a little concerned” that they won’t have enough time to cover the necessary material.

In Ellicott, Colo., just east of Colorado Springs, PARCC tests will begin March 2, but that’s a week later than state tests started last year, so teachers are relieved that they have a little more time, said Joe Torrez, the principal of Ellicott Elementary School.

“Last year, it seemed to come around real quick after our holiday break,” he said. “Now it’s put off a little bit.”

Ed Elsea, the principal of Hillcrest School, which enrolls 325 6th graders in rural Lebanon, Mo., is happy that his district chose a time period for Smarter Balanced testing that is toward the end of the state’s late-March-to-late-May testing window. “We want to get as much of our curriculum in as possible,” he said.

Longer Tests

The timing of the tests is an issue for some educators, but the length of the new tests is an area of concern as well. Although most students are expected to complete the PARCC tests in 6½ to 7½ hours, PARCC advises schools to schedule nearly 10 hours for elementary students and a little over 11 hours for those in high school to make sure there is enough time for all students to finish. Smarter Balanced estimates its tests are projected to take 7½ to eight hours.

Dolores Samson, who teaches 5th grade at Larchmont Elementary School in Toledo, Ohio, said that last year her students had to sit for tests on only three days of a two-week testing window in April. This year, they’ll face more time in testing, with one window starting mid-February and another in the spring.

“It just seems like a lot for my 5th graders,” she said.

Teachers report that the length of the new assessments displaces more instructional time.

Lori Michalic said that her district isn’t testing in the earliest part of the PARCC window—it starts in mid-March—but she feels more pressed than she did last year. That’s because the test takes more time than tests did last year, she said.

“I had more time to get in my content last year,” said Ms. Michalic, who teaches English/ language arts at Tallmadge High School in Ohio, outside Akron. “Students are being pulled out of academic classes [to take it] for more hours, so we’re losing that instructional time.”

Ms. Michalic, Ohio’s 2015 teacher of the year, said she supports the intent of the PARCC and Smarter Balanced projects. But the way it’s playing out worries her.

“I really appreciate what PARCC and Smarter Balanced are trying to do. I get that better tests take more time,” she said. “But in reality, we’re looking at what’s happening to kids, and they’re losing [instructional] time. I think we’re caught between theory and reality.”

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Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as As Common-Core Testing Season Begins, Some Teachers Feel Pressured to Cover Content


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